Review Detail

Kids Fiction 2546
Vivid account of the 1970s
Overall rating 
 
5.0
Plot/Characters/Writing Style 
 
5.0
Illustrations/Photos (if applicable) 
 
N/A
It's 1975, and while some middle school problems are the same (weird teachers, school lunches, annoying parents), some are very different. Charlie lives in upscale Laurel Canyon, and right before 6th grade is to start, he finds out that many of his friends are going to other schools. The reason? Black children are going to be bused to Wonderland Avenue Elementary school. Charlie's mom doesn't have much of an opinion, because she is still reeling from Charlie's brother's allergy related death. Charlie's dad thinks this is a good thing-- he fought at the end of WWII and employs blacks at his medical supply business, and wants Charlie to be accepting, especially since there were times when he experienced prejudice because he is Jewish. Armstrong is to take the bus in and doesn't want to leave his old school. Things get off to a rocky start, partially because of racial issues, but more because there are a fair number of new students introduced to a longstanding population. Charlie and Armstrong have an odd bond-- Charlie overheads Armstrong tell a story about his neighbor, Mr. Khalil, dying. The story turns out to be false, but Charlie admires Armstrong's deviousness and creativity, and Armstrong feels bad that he made up the story when he finds out that Charlie's brother really did die. There's a humorous incident involving Ho Hos (the snack cake) that goes down the same way, and when students who are bused are supposed to spend the night closer to the school before a big class trip, Charlie's father invites Armstrong. The boys bond more during the class trip, and come to an easier alliance. Their relationship is imperiled when Charlie's father is held up at his business by two black men and becomes very afraid, but it is this incidence that sets the whole family on the road to healing.
Good Points
First of all, I have to buy this because of the description of cleaning white wall tires! That was always my job, and I hated it as much as Charlie does. Small historical touches, like using land lines, biking around without supervision, and reading from SRA cards, make this a great choice. It is how the racial issues are addressed, however, that makes this brilliant. Things aren't easy, but they aren't horrible, either. The issue of busing was covered well from both sides, and the attitudes were very much in line with what I remember growing up. (I'm probably about 2 years younger than the author.) It's hard to get a good balance-- this book will make some readers uncomfortable, especially the scene where there is an interracial kiss and tensions fly. But it's brilliantly done. Is the boy really made that the boy who kissed the girl he likes is black, or that the girl he likes seems to have enjoyed the kissed? These issues are never simple, and middle grade readers are sophisticated enough to understand this.

The role of the fathers is interesting as well. Charlie's served at the end of WWII, and Armstrong's father lost a leg in Korea, and this shapes the way they treat their children. There were other interesting adult characters as well-- the lonely but helpful Mr. Khalil, and the poor beleaguered aide, Edwina Gaines, who writes hysterical incident reports when things go wrong at school.

The only thing that I disliked about this was the inclusion of the brother's death, and the mother's dysfunctional way of dealing with that, but that is a personal issue. It was addressed fairly lightly in the book, and the mother does finally get her act together.

Armstrong and Charlie is a must read for middle grade students who are trying to figure out their own place in the world, since that's exactly what these characters are trying to do. They're just trying to do it in a world where there are banana seats on bicycles and peanut butter in every sandwich in the lunch room. 6th grade is still about learning to spread the Ho Hos around, and good historical fiction manages to show students that while things may change, they really stay very much the same.
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